Insight: Why have Honda struggled so much in F1? Maybe this is the reason
Honda F1
Posted By: James Allen  |  15 Jun 2017   |  7:16 pm GMT  |  238 comments

Formula 1 is an incestuous business.

People are baffled about how the world’s largest engine maker, Honda, could have got its hybrid turbo engine programme so wrong, year after year. And perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that it has not been incestuous enough.

Let me explain.

There is a limited pool of expertise at the highest level in F1 and it commands a high value and it tends to move around.

Honda F1

Peter Prodromou left Red Bull Racing, at the end of their dominant period, for McLaren and after a few months ‘gardening leave’ took a headful of secrets about how Adrian Newey’s complex aerodynamics and rake angles work to his new employers in Woking.

There isn’t much about how Ferrari operates today that Mercedes don’t know from hiring James Allison, from the set up of the engineering and design departments, simulation tools and the engine facility to the way the chief strategist thinks.

Top operations engineer Jock Clear moved the opposite way, so the knowledge gains cancelled each other out!

This is a time honoured tradition and it’s actually a good thing for F1 because it raises the standard across the field. A good example of that is Toro Rosso and its transformation from Minardi era staff to the team it is today.


When Giorgio Ascanelli (above) was running it, the team was largely Italians. Nothing wrong with that, but as staff came in from UK based teams and Red Bull Technology in the UK (not necessarily all British but who had worked for UK based teams) the know how of everything from the simple to the complex infused the team and the standard went up.

It’s all about ideas and processes. There are some things F1 teams do that any rival team can notice and copy, such as the pivoting front jack for faster pit stops. But there are thousands of little processes and ideas that are percolated in teams and refreshed through learnings and staff changes, that keep moving F1 teams forward.

Honda F1

The same is even more true for the rarified world of hybrid turbo F1 engines. Mercedes got the jump on everyone else in 2014 by focussing on energy regeneration from the KERS days and investing in a centre of excellence on this technology at Brixworth, near Northampton.

The highly organised engineers, under Andy Cowell, were looking ahead to the 2014 F1 season when the game changer would be hybrid technology. Mercedes saw the opportunity and took it. Ferrari and Renault were left behind.

But not for long. By 2015 the Ferrari was a good step closer on engine power and had improved markedly on recovery rates and on driveability. The original Ferrari hybrid power unit was too sudden in the way it moved between engine modes, which unsettled the engine, created vibration and also unsettled the driver. Power delivery was all over the place.

The Mercedes was smoother and that made for a better and more drivable engine. That know how transferred.

By 2016 the engine was the best part of the Ferrari car, the chassis was now letting it down. This year there is nothing to chose between Mercedes and Ferrari packages.

Andy Cowell

That’s partly because Ferrari spent a lot of money, but also because some engineers had been recruited from Mercedes with know-how. They tried to get Cowell himself but he stayed loyal to the three pointed star.

Others moved too; from last year to this Renault picked up two Mercedes and two Ferrari engineers to help drive the recovery of their programme, which still lags behind the top two (much to Red Bull’s frustration).i

The rotation of information is critical to F1 and this is where Honda gave itself a handicap. Already they were up against it because of coming in late to the party when other manufacturers had three to five years headstart on the technology. But to compound that, they are cut off and isolated in Japan without the throughput of the know-how that has rotated through the Europe based builders.

It’s a similar thing with tyre knowledge. The top teams have tyre technicians with years of experience of different teams and it’s very valuable with unpredictable tyres such as the Pirellis.

Honda has a proud tradition of training engineers in F1 who then go on to the other areas of the business. It’s always been part of the rationale for going racing, as well as to show the challenging spirit.

They are now in the realms of damaging the brand, the longer their problems in F1 go on.

Ferrari engineers

They appear not to have sought to headhunt Mercedes or Ferrari engineers. You might think that for a German or an Italian it would not be attractive to go to Japan to work, but speaking to F1 engineers that’s what is considered a ‘no-lose’ situation. You go there for three to five years on big money, the product can only get better as a result and you can come back to the UK richer and with reputation enhanced.

“It’s hard to get a move like that wrong”, one engineer told this site.

The problem is lead times; both with the engines themselves due to it taking months for castings and so on and also for gardening leave for engineers with the know-how; typically up to 12 months.

Honda urgently needs an injection of know-how and a season of development with Sauber.

They owe McLaren for the failures of the past three years, so a temporary separation in 2018, with Honda continuing to fund the McLaren team and white label Mercedes engines, until being reunited again in 2019 would make business sense on all sides.

Let’s see if it happens or whether the relationship is past even that solution.

What do you think? Leave your comments below

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If F1 decided to abandon Hybrid technology would anybody bemoan that fact? I doubt it and in fact I think it would be welcome. Even Bernie had that part right when he pointed out that Hybrid is scarcely cutting edge. Here in California having a hybrid does not even allow driving in high occupancy lanes anymore.


Great and interesting insight. Thanks.


I’m totally agree with you. The knowledge in the long run is to share to all teams … less for honda, that incomprensiblement seeks outside help to a pride difficult to understand, and still less, when they lose a reputation that has been gained over the years and it runs out slowly.


That’s exactly what I said time ago, after the first months. The Japanese in general are close and proud but in this case it could lead to disaster, as it is…


This whole engine problem doesn’t seem that difficult to solve IF THEY WANT TO:

When I started watching F1 in 1995, there were works engine manufacturers vs privateers.

Works in 1995: Renault, Ferrari, Mercedes, Peugeot, Ford, Yamaha,
Privateer: Brian Hart & Mugen. In 1998, Arrow built their own engine.
Back then, as now, the works manufacturers had relatively unlimited budgets. However the privateer teams engines weren’t that far behind the works ones. Harte were respectable and Mugen were much sought after. The Arrows engine didn’t disgrace itself either.

The fact was that it wasn’t that difficult to build a 3.0 Normally Aspirated Engine, the knowledge was out there.

If there was a will to do it, they could go back to the 3.0 NA formula in the morning and have all sorts of manufacturers entering.

However, I think that somebody in F1 made a deal with Merc that they could write the engine rulebook to suit themselves and thereby elevate their brand towards being a legendary one like Ferrari through a continued period of dominance if they didn’t pull out with BMW, Toyota, Ford, Honda etc. back in 2009. F1 was on it’s knees at that stage.


McLaren going back to Honda again after taking a breather?

The real question for McLaren is whether they really have a “Works Engine” partnership with Honda – or are able to get there in the future.

As envisioned by Ron Dennis, a works engine partnership is where the chassis and the engine are designed together as a whole, and all tradeoffs are considered across the traditional boundaries between engine and chassis.

This appears not to be the case between the two – so even with a reliable and powerful Honda engine, McLaren would be behind the real “works” teams.
After all, McLaren seem unaware about what Honda is working on, and Top Management communication between the companies is nonexistent. And why did McLaren have to use the press to express their dissatisfaction with Honda if the two management teams were talking?


What a fantastic piece. Really informative. Keep it up!


Do you think williams could swap to honda power next year?.
Williams have already chosen stroll for his dad’s money over a fast driver.
I can see them choosing honda 💰 instead of paying out for mercedes. Any rumours?


I think you also read the article in gptoday , right?

That will be along with “laughable” actually consistent with Williams new spirit of “money instead of glory”.

I can totally see Mclaren using Merc engine and then Sauber and Williams using Honda for next year.


Things can move fast once decisions have been made. It would not surprise me at all if talks with Mercedes were at a far more advanced stage than any of us realise and if they are already working out how to fit the Merc PU into the current car with a view to racing it after the Summer break. And it would not surprise me if Alonso himself was pushing heavily for this. There is no point at all in limping on with the Honda PU if they can’t see it being up to snuff.


But Honda has Gilles Simon as a consultant until this year. What exactly did he contribute???

It is just as likely Honda were hamstrung by size 0 thinking, the token system and their consultant who told them what things they needed to fix.

They should know a bit about ICE and hybrid systems having built them for years. And they should have a track simulator dyno as one is shown on the Honda website videos.

Maybe they are just laying a thick smokescreen this year before they do better?????


I can’t remember any “honda domination era” in F1
(I say I can’t remember, not saying didnt exist in the all history, in case someone older want to correct me).

So from the beginning I thought that McHonda reunion its just a nostalgic thing fated to be disastrous.


The initial 2015 was a dog due to the Size Zero philosophy McLaren wished to pursue. They should have taken notice of Ferrari’s struggles in 2014 with that very philosophy. Ferrari learned that a bigger turbo and improved hybrid capabilities were the key to making more power. Honda improved the engine last year but instead of building an evolutionary version for 2017 gambled on a revolutionary one and has lost big time. Honda currently looks pretty hopeless and I don’t see any improvement coming in the next season or two. By than the board will decide enough is enough and pull the plug on the entire fiasco.


“People are Baffled ” ?
The whole world’s baffled about Honda.
Has anyone scene the clip on
BBC Have I Got News For You use the clip
duffer Nigel Farage using the same quote 😄
Honda are pants in F1 they should stick to 2 wheels in Moto GP though Ducati are coming strong. I hope Ducati sticks it to Honda there also.


I’m a retired mechanical engineer and in the course of my career I had a lot of experience working with technical people from Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand and some with people from the UK, France, Germany and Brazil. The Japanese are by far the most closed to external information and assistance. As long as a given task is not time sensitive, that can be tolerated. However, when there is time sensitivity, the situation is magnified. In previous times, having decision making concentrated in Japan was also a hindrance as it slowed the whole process down. It could also sometimes lead to incorrect conclusions due to not having first hand information. These were the major reasons, from what I understand, for the lack of results with the Toyota F1 effort but perhaps that effect is decreasing with time. Going from memory, didn’t Honda do a season or two with the Spirit F1 team before moving to McLaren? That would have been a much better approach this time around, but my guess is that the timing of the end of the McLaren-Mercedes arrangement precluded that…


mclaren chose honda to supply them, now they have honda supplying them with engines and spare cash. they’ve got exactly what they wanted so i don’t understand what all the fuss is about. alonso wanted mclaren and is with maclaren too. if he wanted to stay with ferrari, he would’ve but he didn’t.
there isn’t a rule that says teams or drivers must take turns in winning. it’s a competition and the best at any race will win that race. it’s up to teams and drivers to prepare well enough to give themselves that winning chance..


Hiring an engineer from another team for big money is often paying for the risk of the engineer to go to jail when trying to bring software and blueprints from the old team.
As in Toyota 2002/3 using the Ferrari aerodynamic software and more or less doing a copy of the Ferrari.
Perhaps Honda is to gentlemanlike to survive in the F1 swamp of espionage ???


Yeah trust me they are not. We were threatened by other teams when one their engineers was caught under a competitors transporter taking spy pictures of their race cars & engines. We had to tell them that might be ok in Japan but not ok here.




Not capitals please


I’ve been following this F1 technical forum for some time. The Honda Power Unit topic now has over 9200 posts. Give it a look:

Torchwood Mobile

If going to Japan would be a no-lose situation, what would happen if engineers made the first approach to Honda?

Would Honda save face for not asking for help, or would they feel the applicant disloyal to whomever he or she was with before?

jonathan powell

Hi James who do you believe are the key people working their magic at Force India currently and who have come from other teams?
I agree with what you’ve said in the article however Pat Symonds wasnt able to return Williams back to winning ways and it remains to be seen if Paddy Lowe will aswell….


My understanding is that several engine tech people were talking to Honda but were ultimately rejected because they were European and would not fit well into the Honda culture. “It isn’t the Honda way of doing things.”
And that is one of the biggest hurdles corporate-run teams have to get over. F-1 teams and their personnel have to be nimble and react to changes and opportunities. They need to make decisions quickly and be able to change without getting approvals from legions of corporate “suits.” It’s not the Honda way…
The downside of the incestuous nature of F-1 is that poaching of personnel is particularly devastating for smaller teams. A quality talent builds his/her chops at the small team then is lured away by one of the larger teams with bigger budgets and salaries. I think that scenario hit Sauber particularly hard. They had a great pool of talent that were able to get the team to punch way above their weight. But they were lured away. Same with Renault. So far Sauber hasn’t had the resources to build another team of designers and engineers that have jelled as well.
Sure it can give the small teams a leg up if they can attract talent away from the larger teams or pickup someone who has separated from an older, larger team. But I am afraid Sauber will not survive in the long run.


So working with Honda years ago on racing projects, you cant believe how difficult it is to deal with them. They are the classic example of “If we didn’t think of it isn’t going to happen” or “oh Don-san that is impossible and cant be true” The amount of meetings I sat through for the Indycar project when it first began, was told that they were going to have the most powerful engine in the series in its debut is mindboggling and I cant count on my fingers. When they finally stated how much it was and I pointed out Cosworth had about 200 more then that at the time. Then came the “oh Don-san that is impossible you are incorrect.” Well guess how well Bobby did at Indy that year. Oh yeah he didn’t qualify and he was also blamed for poor car setup for why he didn’t.
It was amazing how many good guys quit working for them because they were American and The Japanese would not listen to them.
So here you have an F1 project that has had the ability to do well, but even if they hired engineers that worked under Andy, would probably not be listened to or believed. I’ve been in their dyno cells and they don’t lie, software and technicians can though. This all starts with trust something they lack. In the big picture they get what they deserve. Its just unfortunate that McLaren is at the back of the grid because of it.


Time is not on Honda’s side. They also seem to lack vision. Perhaps it’s time for old dogs to bow out and hire some fresh brains from abroad. At the end it will still be Honda.


A bit off topic, but… I’ll post anyway xP

Nick Fry talking at MABS2017.
In 2008 FAlonso refused an offer made by Honda Racing, right before it was transferred to Brawn. “Fernando Alonso should have driven for Nick Fry y Ross Brawn in 2009. Had FA done it, he would be four times F1 WDC by now”.


What impact does the language and cultural barriers pose for F1 engineer moving to Japan for 3 or 4 years. Would young European graduates with families leave the familiar comfort of “motorsports valley” for three years in Japan with the wife and kids comfortably or should Honda bring its F1 operation to Europe, like it did auto design and marketing to California.

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